When first reading, “A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!” I felt disoriented by Emily Dickinson’s roundabout, meandering syntax. So, I decided to take on a sense of having been thrust into a mission that seems impossible to understand.  I found a story line acted out between the poem’s speaker and a still-unproven emissary. Play along with me, if you like, to create a complete sentence out of the poem’s first line by using the recognizable lead-in.

Whimsically, at first, I placed the familiar cliche from the movie, “Mission Impossible,” in front of the poem. This is your mission.  If you decide to accept it, you will need:

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
It’s fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – ’twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me – Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

The first line of the poem, now, has a subject (you), a main verb (will need), and a prepositional phrase …well, I’m not going to turn this into a grammar lesson, though I confess I always loved conjugating sentences.  Right away, I feel lured into accepting this mysterious appointment with the promise of more than a fair wage: “It’s fee – to be of Gold -”.  In this conjured mission, the only assurance of reliability, “… I am true!” is set opposite the vulnerable condition of precarious reliance on nature’s “monstrous House”, and, “A single Ragged Child -”.

If the “Him” referenced throughout the poem is an allusion to posterity, and “a Mine” is the rich source, or treasure house, of truth stored up in the poems for future generations, it stands to reason that, “To earn a Mine – (anyone worthy of it, willingly) would run/That Interdicted Way,”.  I think part of the difficulty in this poem is that there slips back and forth self-talk by the speaker, and, imaginary instructions transmitted to another. The first two lines of the second stanza appear as a personal reflection, while the other two are addressed to one who is charged with following through. If a poem is a storehouse for truth, regardless of how much “That Interdicted Way,” that opaque language, seems to resist meaning, then the hero of this mission impossible will be the reader intent on breaching poetic perimeters.  I find it comical then to read, “.. Charge Thee speak it plain – ”, speak it plain (!?), that which is embodied in the poetry itself.

Just like the movie, this “mission impossible” is not impossible at all if the poet’s representative is up to the challenge. Much of the implied dare is in the question about whether, “.. – Truth is True?”

As in the famous thriller, instinct and skill must guide when truth is not forthcoming.

The speaker seems to say that if you cannot find the truth, then look at the source of the message, “And answer What I do -”.  Almost as if we are told to, “consider the source.”

Perhaps this third stanza’s apparent reversal of night and day refers to enlightened self-interest which results from a period of emotional darkness, “Since Midnight – happened – ”. If so, it would fit in with this idea of poetry-for-the-ages being dependent on a single “ragged child” and “Another Lad – (to) help thee -”.

The fifth stanza reiterates “orders” in language fitting promises to a soldier of fortune for hire, “Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be – /And His – in solid Gold – /Say Rubies – if He hesitate – ”.  The speaker then seems to be whispering only to herself, “My Message – must be told – ”.

The final two stanzas are a decorative conclusion as we might see in a Hollywood film. The brave speaker walks out of the picture into the sunset.  The dominant, starring role is now forever placed into the hands of the reader (ragged child? other lad?), “Say – last I said – was This – /That when the Hills – come down… And Deity conclude – / Then – look for me… Least Figure – on the Road – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Emily Dickinson’s multiple images for the times that are a-changing, and the thoughts that accompany them, in, “The murmuring of Bees, has ceased”, challenges me to stop and notice language and the transformations they attempt to express. And, what role my thoughts play in my changing definition of myself.

The reading I do, the poems I scrutinize, even positive quotes I need or want to hear on any given day depend on many things: Whether I’m happy about the responsibilities I face. Or, if someone near and deare is happy. Perhaps I’m having money problems. On the other hand, if I just got a new job the words that will feed my soul will be quite different. A new baby in the family? Some other extraordinary happening? Or, maybe change happens gradually, like the seasons, my age, even my idea of God.

The murmuring of Bees, has ceased
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come.
The lower metres of the Year
When Nature’s laugh is done
The Revelations of the Book
Whose Genesis was June.
Appropriate Creatures to her change
The Typic Mother sends
As Accent fades to interval
With separating Friends
Till what we speculate, has been
And thoughts we will not show
More intimate with us become
Than Persons, that we know.

As I write this, the summer of 2010 is complete. “The murmuring of the Bees, has ceased”. Yet, other indicators of the truth of my physical existence remain. In fact, they never conclude: “But murmuring of some/Posterior, prophetic,/Has simultaneous come.”

Perhaps, in part, the poem suggests examining my thoughts and words for which ones are like the murmur of this year’s bees. And which ones valued as more enduring. Memorizing a poem to offer it back to myself as a positive quote does not mean parroting happy talk. Quite the contrary. Like a friend willing to simply listen to a rant, the poem reflects me back to myself; or, encourages me to be myself.

Isn’t it fascinating that “The lower metres of the Year”, assumes my understanding (conscious or unconscious thought) that all year there are other signs, other whispers, re-emerging, or constant – voices spoken with an undertone similar to summer’s with its unobtrusiveness, as when “.. Nature’s laugh is done”.

The poem almost belabors the conditions that describe summer, imitating my reluctance to put summer in the past tense in a “book/year.” Again, there is a metaphor for “Genesis-summer,” but this time it’s a soft introduction of summer’s inevitable, though perhaps unwanted disclosure, even betrayal, “The Revelations of the Book/Whose Genesis was June.” The revelation is autumn. With fall, “As Accent (that) fades to interval”, the word play introduces a notion of dreary things to come; and, intimates whispered gossip’s power, “With separating Friends”.

Finally, the lines, “Till what we speculate, has been/And thoughts we will not show” provide me with a treatise, of sorts, for my idea that certain poems transcend and embrace myself.

I’ve been alerted recently by reading Jed Deppman’s Trying To Think With Emily Dickinson, that the poet took thought/thinking as a subject in itself. Perhaps that is one reason my own thoughts, “More intimate with us become/Than Persons, that we know” must be my most definitive aspect.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Like many children, when little I was entertained by garrulous motormouths. At some point in late adolescence I started to appreciate those who could concentrate on a topic so as to enjoy a lengthy conversation.  Not long after, I learned self-confidence when I discovered a knack for leading group discussions and that I enjoyed public speaking and performing. Emily Dickinson sets up conversational references in “I fear a Man of frugal speech -” perhaps to comment on the developmental effect of our interaction with others.

I fear a Man of frugal speech –
I fear a Silent Man –
Haranguer – I can overtake –
Or Babbler – entertain –

But He who weigheth – While the Rest –
Expend their furthest pound –
Of this Man – I am wary –
I fear that He is Grand –

My tendency is to rattle on to fill the gaps of silence in the conversation, as described in line one, between me and someone who uses speech very sparingly, frugally.   In the second example, since there’s no conversation possible with “… a Silent Man – ”, I think of a party or group meeting. There’s the inevitable one who sits listening. The only conversation in this instance is the one I have with myself, so I feel compelled to try to “make ’em talk!” Or, heaven forbid there drop a moment of quiet in an otherwise lively exchange of ideas. Then, I’ve more than once jumped at the chance to have my say.

I read the third example as outright funny. “Haranguer – I can overtake -”. What a spectacle it is when I take the bait and get into a contest of insights, opinions and interpretations with someone who confuses their entitlement to beliefs with their right to exist. Fourth, it is probably a sign of a dampened conscience that my mind goes into to cruise control when I’m around naturally loquacious individuals who epitomize the gift of gab: “Or Babbler – entertain – ”.

In stark contrast to circumstances where another’s silence or “frugal speech” prompts thoughtless chatter on my part, in the fifth line, “But He who weigheth – While the Rest – ”, the poem indicates a progression. Perhaps “the rest” is about those of us who talk or say little because reflective or philosophical thinking is forgotten in the anticipations and apprehensions of discussion.

The word fear is used three times in the poem; twice in the first stanza and once in the second. Fear of what I will say when reacting to someone’s silence by blurting the first words that occur to me. Fear of how much smarter they might be than me. Akin to the fear of the unknown, these conversational lapses remind me that nothing is foreordained. Surely fear in the sense of respect, too, for one who keeps his own counsel when others, “Expend their furthest pound -”, put all they can into convincing others, or showcasing their own cleverness.

In young children it is endearing when bravado and bragging enter into their language and behavior. As Erikson’s “stages of psychosocial development” describe it, 2 to 3-year-olds will either enjoy autonomy or feel shame and doubt; ages 4 to 6 will exhibit self-motivation or guilt; diligence or inferiority will typify childhood from 7 to 11. Autonomy, self-motivation and diligence in these ages is easy to recognize in little babblers and haranguers.

Whether I interpret wary and fear in the final, “Of this Man – I am wary -/ I fear that He is Grand -”, as dread or esteem depends on whether I have found any grandeur in my own life and being – my motivations and responsibilities. And, whether I have the power to experience sympathetic understanding in all kinds of conversations.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

How often I’ve demanded of myself to come to my senses and get down to a favored course of action.  Then, to dispense with daydreams, spending foolishly or some such stumbling block; if successful, then apply myself to my declared goals. Emily Dickinson’s “A Doubt if it be Us” scrutinizes these disparities between intention and action.

A Doubt if it be Us
Assists the staggering Mind
In an extremer Anguish
Until it footing find –

An Unreality is lent,
A merciful Mirage
That makes the living possible
While it suspends the lives.

To dramatize the phenom, the poem uses the circumstance of severe trauma, extreme anguish. In this case, then, I am willing to accept instinctive uncertainty if to “(Assist) the staggering Mind”, doubt provides a cushion “Until it footing find -”.

I can’t help focusing on both the poem’s implied advantages of doubt, and its description – as though it were like a knee jerk to doctor’s tap. Customarily, doubt is seen as a chosen lack of conviction or uncertainty toward something others do or believe. Is it not? Or, like suspicion, an attitude that is aimed at others. Rarely, is doubt aimed inward seen as sensible. The poem looks at doubt’s instinctive characteristics. And, that this instinct is one of self preservation.

Sometimes I am good at handling the relationships, finances and commitments in my life. At other times, my perceptions challenge what formerly seemed to come natural. Shock after great pain is when “An Unreality is lent, / A merciful Mirage” keeps me from comprehending for a time how much my reality has changed.

In smaller shocks to my system, outcomes are also unpredictable. For example, my tastes are more lavish than I can afford. If a financial opportunity comes up, will my susceptibility to beautiful clothes, jewelry, books and art sabotage my ability to handle relationships involved to turn transactions to my benefit.  Clearly, two distinct truths clamor for “That (which) makes the living possible”.

The outcome turns entirely on the Doubt Instinct. To personalize Dickinson’s “Us” of the first line into “me,” one or the other alternative (spending unwisely or organizing wisely) will hold sway. If my doubt instinct operates for my long-term benefit my tendency toward extravagance will be held at bay. Will it be strong and instinctive? Enough that I am careful not to invest money needed for everyday living? Doubt, “While it suspends the lives” , may last for seconds or days.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

With one eye on the so-called big picture, and the other on myself, personal meaning must be discovered. “I cannot buy it – ’tis not sold -” is one of many Emily Dickinson poems I find satisfying for their guiding principle in matters of ego versus destiny. The meaning of life, no less, is forever rooted in these sometimes dueling forces.

I cannot buy it – ’tis not sold –
There is no other in the World –
Mine was the only one

I was so happy I forgot
To shut the Door And it went out
And I am all alone –

If I could find it Anywhere
I would not mind the journey there
Though it took all my store

But just to look it in the Eye –
“Did’st thou”? “Thou did’st not mean”, to say,
Then, turn my Face away.

I remember the first time I recognized that my view of life and myself was not something I could obtain from someone else. “I cannot buy it – ’tis not sold – / There is no other in the World – ” occurred to me when I was too young to be more than quizzical. I was slightly startled, as a little girl, to realize “Mine was the only one” among the outlooks surrounding me that would accompany me always.

There are several ways to read “I was so happy I forgot / To shut the Door…”. Unselfconscious pleasure at living, while reveling in all the delicious sensations people and nature produce, is both ideal and potentially hazardous. If I am so moved, emotionally, by the majesty of a panorama that I walk too far out on a cliff to admire it, something scary can happen. The “it” in “And it went out /And I am all alone -” recalls the duality of self confirmed when, uninhibited, I get into trouble.  But, “it” also can describe alternating periods when, to begin with, I find it necessary to be alone in order to find out my purpose-in-chief. At other times, I am compelled to ask these same questions together with friends and loved ones. These apparent contradictions are built into questions of meaning.

Occasionally, at my wits’ end, “If I could find it Anywhere / I would not mind the journey there”.  If this poem speaks for the majority of thinking people, it brings to mind a tendency to look for “geographical cures” for life’s biggest dilemmas. Though the poem uses the impulse to travel in search for meaning, or purpose, others will recognize different alternative routes; sex or marrying for the wrong reason, using drugs, alcohol or food. Sometimes, it’s just so tempting to expend all energy available, “Though it took all my store” to jet around town or across continents in search of the answer to life’s burning questions. (With a nod to Garrison Keiller.)

Sometimes when I read this poem the final stanza (all stanzas, a yielding three-legged instead of the solid footing of quatrains) delivers an attitude akin to having settled the issue. “But just to look it in the Eye – ” has all the sound of having given up on journeys and other “jailbreaks” to resolve issues only I can.

Yet, still, questions persist. “”Did’st thou”?”, Destiny asks Ego. “Thou did’st not mean”, to say,” Ego always has a retort.

It is the last line that throws the question back to me, the reader. “Then, turn my Face away.” Is the poem turning away from me at a certain point because I am looking for answers that it cannot provide? Am I turning away from myself? Away from others? It strikes me that at different times, the answer to each question is, “yes.”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Adam and Eve couldn’t blame complex structures of economic systems or multiplex ties of work and relationships when they ran into problems with the moment at hand. Which tells me want and regret may comprise a problem which pre-dates every other hiccup, spiritual and otherwise, on the road to happiness. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems that gives me a big dose of “now” is “The difference between Despair”.

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Is there a “…difference between Despair” over BP Oil’s cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico, “And Fear” that drives our revulsion about, and anticipation of, environmental problems? While the disaster has everyone focused on causes and solutions, it doesn’t have the instantaneous delivery aspect “of a Wreck – /And when the Wreck has been -”.  To dramatize the focus when our body is paralyzed and consciousness is as a light beam on the here and now of being caught in a smashup in traffic, the poem at once lifts us out of danger and shows us one of calamity’s values. Finding benefits of commonly held abhorence for pain, loss, death and other human suffering is not unusual in a poem of Dickinson’s.

Everyone wants to enjoy prime focus; ability to concentrate on the work in front of us. One of the benefits of meditation, of which I am a regular practitioner though for less time each day than is recommended, is increased awareness. This is another way of saying meditation can improve our ability to resist stress and worry. What is the difference between the attention given to the moment when we are caught in a disaster like “..the instant of a Wreck – ” and an instance of peace such as meditation? Both focus attention on the here-and-now to a heightened degree. Dickinson’s example, though, says that living in the present is far more intense than just having improved thoughts and an ability to prioritize. Or, another of meditation’s advantages, a better circulatory system and cardiovascular health. I think what’s going on here is a challenge to realize life itself is intense, dramatic and potentially overwhelming – if we’re paying attention.

The second stanza actually sounds like meditation. “The Mind is smooth – no Motion – / Contented as the eye”. Instead of the bitter, harsh experience of a car crash, now the poem’s emphasis is on a pleasant, mild and agreeable stillness. Instead of imagining the stare of frightful eyes from a head-on driver plunged, like me, toward mutual doom, I have the honeyed stare of one admiring “.. the Forehead of a Bust -”.

Perhaps, like our ancestors, we will never be able to avoid the impulse to look for what the future will bring. For goodness sake, I don’t even understand most of what my past brought. I also wonder whether the cagey use of “it” in “That knows – it cannot see – ” avoids precision about whether “I” have potential for freedom from worry.

Or, if it’s the lifeless, stone head that is alone in its freedom from either despair or fear.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Could it be madness if my behavior is inconvenient to everyone around me? I suppose it’s a universal fear to find oneself unhinged from the reality that is defined by family and friends. Emily Dickinson’s “The first Day’s Night had come” plays with this fear.

The first Day’s Night had come –
And grateful that a thing
So terrible – had been endured –
I told my Soul to sing –

She said her Strings were snapt –
Her Bow – to Atoms blown –
And so to mend her – gave me work
Until another Morn –

And then – a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled it’s horror in my face –
Until it blocked my eyes –

My Brain – begun to laugh –
I mumbled – like a fool –
And tho’ ’tis Years ago – that Day –
My Brain keeps giggling – still.

And Something’s odd – within –
That person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?

There is safety for me in this poem that is perhaps an illusion. But, then, when can one tell if personal illusions serve our greater good? Or, remove us from it? It’s a question I’ve thought about alot. When I was a child, my reality was unlike anything I could find at home. Friends gradually became important. But, I sensed the fears I had about the feelings that rocked me and tossed me were not shared by others.

Acknowledging, “She said her Strings were snapt -/ Her Bow – to Atoms blown – ”, debunks and discredits all the voices in my head that say I shouldn’t feel my wreck and ruin of emotions. The fact, though, of there being a legitimate part of me that is not completely shattered when it says, “And so to mend her – gave me work / Until another Morn – ” is something to hold on to.

I don’t believe this poem’s first stanza reflects a child’s or even a young adult’s response to death or other loss. It’s too full of experience. The ability to talk to myself about distinctions in what I think, feel and do in the face of great pain testifies to considerable skill and sophistication. Sometimes this means simply acknowledging a kind of blindness about what, in fact, I am feeling, or about what the next step might be: “And then – a Day as huge / As Yesterdays in pairs, / Unrolled it’s horror in my face – / Until it blocked my eyes – ”. Nevertheless, to “unroll” implies moving forward. The fear of this “horror” is of being out of control; of being moved in a direction I neither understand, nor like.

I am acquainted with the kind of hysteria described in the fourth stanza. There is absolutely no self reflection in such a state. I’m not sure whether the distance described between the here-and-now of the present-day circumstance of the poem and when “I mumbled – like a fool -” indicates longing or feelings (undescribed) I continue to identify within.

I can see that the person I am today is like someone else entirely from my younger self. Is that a good thing? Or, not? The not knowing is kooky, wacky, puzzling and mystifying. “That person that I was – / And this One – do not feel the same – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

postscript: Wilkie Collins wrote “Woman in White” in 1860. See Madwomen in the Attic on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 BST on Tuesday 20 April 2010 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.